Dr. Frank Tuitt is the Vice President and Chief Diversity Office and a Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut. His research explores topics related to access and equity in higher education; teaching and learning in racially diverse college classrooms; and diversity and organizational transformation. Dr. Tuitt is a co-editor and contributing author of the books Race, Equity, and the Learning Environment: The Global Relevance of Critical and Inclusive Pedagogies in Higher Education (2016), Black Faculty in the Academy: Narratives for Negotiating Identity and Achieving Career Success (2014), Contesting the Myth of a Post-Racial Era: The Continued Significance of Race in U.S. Education (2013), and Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms (2003).
In 2019, Dr. Tuitt was awarded the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education Individual Leadership Award which is presented to a NADOHE member for outstanding contributions to research, administration, practice, advocacy and/or policy, and whose work informs and advances the understanding of diversity and inclusive excellence in higher education.
Dr. Tuitt is a Boston native of Caribbean descent and received his doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2003 and his BA in Human Relations in 1987 from Connecticut College, where he currently serves as an emeritus trustee.
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Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s series on vocation, meaning, and purpose. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s senior director of learning design and I'm excited you joined us today because we hear from one of my friends, who is the chief diversity officer, vice president of a major university system at UConn - that's Dr. Frank Tuitt. Now Dr. Tuitt literally wrote the book on inclusive excellence. So if you're curious about what it is like to take this call to another level, to lead a university system, then you are in the right place. Welcome Dr.Tuitt to the Sound of the Genuine.
Dr. Tuitt, it is always good to see you and spend some time with you. How are you doing?
Frank: I’m well. Good to see you as well.
Patrick: So you're going to have to start all the way at the beginning. I know where you are and what you're doing, but you gotta take me back. Was this what you had always dreamed for yourself?
Frank: I can't say it was what I always dreamed for myself, but I can say that my parents and in particular, my granddad - in my dissertation I give a shout out to my granddad, who I have a memory of sitting at the kitchen table when I was about five or six years old. And him sitting me down and telling sort of the story of our family and telling me what I was going to accomplish. And that was the first person who ever called me doctor, at an age of six or something like that, called me doctor. So in my dissertation, I thank him in the acknowledgements. I thank him for planting that seed and seeing something that I didn't see at the time.
Fast forward to being an undergraduate at a small liberal arts institution where I'm one of ten black males in the school and one of ten students of color in my class. And at that point I didn't have aspirations to be an academic. You know I knew that I would pursue something that will allow me to engage people.
So I started out as a psychology major and then couldn't stomach getting up early in the morning to go to psych 101. I stumbled through the first semester. And then spring semester I went to see the professor and he was like, I was wondering when you were going to drop. He said, you know, I hardly made it to class, and when I did, I fell asleep. I was like, okay at least he noticed me, but then I remembered I was probably the only black face in the class. So it was clear to see that I wasn't showing up on a regular basis. But fast forward four years later - a serious amount of engagement with the institution as a student leader.
Finally turned it around academically, was doing really well, and owed a lot of that to the folks who were there supporting me, nurturing me, standing in the gap for me and, you know, holding me accountable when I was messing up. And I decided at that point, when I was thinking about what to do next, that I would do that! I would try to become the administrator and work in higher ed and so that landed me in a very remote place in New Hampshire.
So not where I imagined I would be, but then I got a second chance and ended up at Wesleyan University and spent six years there working with students, faculty, and staff of color. And that really cemented that this was what I was going to do as a career.
Patrick: And going all the way back to that conversation with your granddad, when he named over you doctor, what type of doctor was in his imagination? I mean, you're working with students of color now, but was that the type of education that he had imagined for you?
Frank: You know, this was you're going to do something significant. I'm sure he probably thought medical doctor or something like that, but that was the extent of it. My parents, they weren't one of those overly demanding parents, but they absolutely stressed the value and importance of education and so I did fairly well in school and they supported that.
Patrick: So as you pursued this academic trajectory, and administration in particular, what were those first couple of jobs like? What did the work demand of you? What were you pushing in your own research, teaching and study? What was it like to step into administration?
Frank: There are two signature moments in my undergraduate career from a sorta, I guess, foreshadowing what I would be doing. The first was my first year at Connecticut College and I was in human development and psych class and I wrote a paper about the ways in which the educational environment contributes to the underperformance of black students.
And I was reflecting on my own experiences in educational systems in Boston and the ways in which I thought I was treated unfairly. You know, the professor came back at me with some hard criticism. This is not based in theory or research. This is all conjecture here, blah, blah, blah. So I was like, okay. There was a skill to this work. It had to be played in a certain way and eventually I figured that out. My senior thesis turned out to be the same topic where now the lens was on the institution and the ways in which the institution failed to meet the needs of black students in it. I did it through interviewing students at the school, grounding it in research.
And that led to a document that we ended up calling the Statement of Expressions About the Black Experience that we used as a catalyst for engaging the institution. So I started out first year, then senior year I'm doing this thesis, and then I'm clear, I'm going to go back to graduate school, but let me take a few years off and do some administrative work.
It turned out to be six years before I ended up going back to start the doctorate. And so coming into that experience, I knew I was going to focus on black students. So it was just a natural continuation of what I had started at my undergraduate institution. Coming in, I was thinking about what are the ways in which institutions, predominantly white institutions, can support black students?
And based on my administrative experience - I had worked in residential life, I had worked in student affairs, multi-cultural affairs, I was thinking about those programs, and I remember going to some of my advisors saying I wanted to look at the impact of ethnic theme housing on the experiences of minoritized students.
And one of my advisors said, yeah, that's interesting, but those things are going to be a thing of the past soon. So a sense that institutions wouldn't be committed to sustaining those. And so it wasn't until I ran into Dr. Sharon Fries and had the opportunity to take a class with her. She was a visiting faculty member from the University of Maryland and was doing a visiting stint at Harvard and was teaching a class on diversity in higher ed. One of the assignments was to write a paper around something that would improve the experiences of students of color. And for some reason, a light bulb went on where I made the shift from focusing on these things that were external to the classroom to focusing on a classroom. And that paper ended up being the sort of foundation for my dissertation. The title of my dissertation was Black Souls in an Ivory Tower: Understanding What it Means to Teach in a Manner that Respects and Cares for the Souls of African-American Graduate Students. And it was an attempt to identify the pedagogical practices and learning conditions that were most effective for helping black students to achieve at the highest levels. Black graduate students specifically. And that had me headed in the direction of writing about inclusive pedagogy, which was early in my career what a lot of my work focused on. What was interesting about that is I had no interest in being a faculty member. I had seen how black professors were treated, the kind of standards they were held to.
And I'm like, yeah, I'm not signing up for that. But then my advisor, who was a black woman, Dr. Stacey Blake-Beard said to me, you wrote this long ass dissertation on teaching and learning and you are not going to at least try it? So I was like, oh, that's a pretty compelling argument there. I signed up for a postdoc at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and then also agreed to teach as an adjunct faculty member at UMass Boston in their leadership and urban schools program. And as they say the rest was history from there. Teaching ended up being the best decision I could have made.
Patrick: And you not only taught and researched what came to be known in your work as inclusive excellence, but when did you start seeing it? This is more than just a call to the classroom to teach another generation to do this work well, or to research it, to find out the best practices, but you've thought oh, I can apply what I've researched and actually make an institutional difference? When did that start?
Frank: I went through the traditional pathway and I started getting tapped on the shoulder to come provide professional development opportunities to do training around diversity, inclusive pedagogy, and later on inclusive excellence.
And then I think the pivotal moment was being on a search committee to replace someone who had just stepped down from the University of Denver as their CDO and the search firms saying, we weren't able to close the deal here but we think you have the best person for the job sitting right over there.
And it was one of those circumstances where I didn't move out the way quick enough. The provost reached out the next day and was like, we seriously want to talk to you about doing this. And then, you know, I thought about it. I knew eventually I would end up back on the administrative side of the house and as fate would have it, I got tapped on the shoulder at that time and responded and it turned out to be the perfect opportunity to align the things I have been writing about, researching, and gave me an opportunity to move from theory to praxis in a real concrete way.
So the institution sort of became my lab in a lot of ways.
Patrick: Now I know a lot of our students who are listening are folks who are thinking about academic administration are getting really excited right now because they're going like, yes, that's what I want to do, but they have no idea what the day-to-day job is.
Can you just describe a little bit about what that work looked like at DU in particular, about implementing, going from theory to praxis, what that looks like?
Frank: There are a lot of things that come to mind. One is a lot of this work had been done historically from an experiential side of the house. I experienced this program. I'm going to replicate this program, do it this way. I think we should do it this way, so this is how we're going to do it. A lot of it hadn't really been grounded in research and best practices or in sound theoretical approaches to the work. I happened to have that with me in my toolkit.
And there was some resistance to that because most institutions, DU is not any different, were used to doing things the way they always did it. And the resistance took many shapes and forms. It was internal - folks who you would consider to be your allies and accomplices. And folks who, you know, straight up were resistors. But I came to appreciate over time that resistance is a good sign that you're pushing the envelope and stretching individuals and institutions in ways that they need to be stretched.
So there's that. The other thing in this role when you're doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work or you’re doing work under the umbrella of trying to create anti-racist institutions, folks aren't always happy to see you. It was a lot of chasing folks and trying to get folks to collaborate and work with you.
We eventually had to adopt a model that we were going to play with whoever wanted to play with us and not worry so much about those who were avoiding us. And as we started to see good concrete results, others would come along and they did over time. So it’s that, and I think DU in particular is an institution that has a rich history and commitment I like to say it's had over 150 years of perfecting its whiteness. And as you attempt to disrupt that and dismantle systems and structures that drive day to day life in an institution like that, there are a lot of bumps and bruises along the way. The pushback with real and concrete and often landed heavily on, on the body.
I think for me, one of the lessons from that this time around was to really commit to prioritizing self-care in this work in a way that was totally not paid any attention to the first time around.
Patrick: Now Dr. Tuitt, I want to talk to you a little bit about the transition away from DU only because it sounds like, and I know our listeners are going to be thinking about this, that you have a great combination of skills, professional expertise, the faculty, the research you've checked all the boxes, you're living into your vocation in this particular institution that is stubborn like most PWI’S are, but then you really got to start discerning, okay, if this is what I’m called to, or this is the type of work that I'm going to be doing, finding the right institutional fit, the right conditions, the right life conditions to take some of the inner work. I mean, you named self-care. Can you talk a little bit about, before you get to your current role, that transition? How did you do some of that self-discovery and self-awareness of what opens up when you're able to care for self, as you try to move really stubborn institutions.
Frank: Yeah. Great question. So there were a couple of things, right? So I had the opportunity to experience some leadership transitions and in some ways that was good because it exposed me to different ways in doing the work. All of the chancellors that I worked for were very committed to this work, but they showed their commitments in different ways. Not unlike other leaders across the institution.
I think for me, there were several things that I had to face. One, that I had started to build something at the institution that moved from a cultural center on the farthest corner of the institution, to an office, you know and I say this affectionately, to a division in the big house, right? There's a certain amount of protection that was afforded being on the corner of campus. Nobody messing with you doing what you do, to being in the center of campus at the seat, in the center of power at the institution. And that was just a whole different level of exposure. And I came to appreciate that I had moved the institution probably as far as I could move it. And couple that with the reality that I had grown up professionally in the institution.
So they were always going to see me in a certain way. Like I was one of theirs, I was like their child. And so it was easier to be valued or to be respected for the contributions you offered externally than it was internally. So it was that notion, it's always easier to be an expert in somebody else's house and a lot harder to be an expert in the place where you're based. So I think those two things became a reality. There was also a transition in my scholarship that sorta mirrored what was happening in the country, the BLM movement, what was happening at University of Missouri and around the country. As a result of the student protests [I] started on this project that looked at the ways in which higher ed institutions still contain and have vestiges from their plantation past that influence how we think about these things.
And so the combination of living in this space, beginning to critically reflect on a range of experiences, and then I also had a writing project on the sort of visceral impact of doing this work. It was just all coming to the forefront and I was like, I gotta go. And so that was the mistake. I went from being tenured to an administrative role so I never had a sabbatical in 15 years. And I left feeling battered, bruised, fatigued, and just frustrated as hell. But you just know when it's time to step away and so I stepped away with the sense that I wasn't going to do this work this way anymore. When I left, when I took a break from DU, I was like I'm not doing CDL work anymore.
But then I had the chance to get away to go to the Netherlands and do some work with institutions there. And I was doing work in the Caribbean and in the UK. And so seeing how I could have an impact on the ways in which institutions thought about this. And so that opened up a space that confirmed for me that my frustration was about that particular context and not necessarily about the role and the potential that people in these leadership roles have to help institutions become less violent on one of our task populations.
That opened the door for me to looking at a couple of specific positions. It was important for me to get back to the east coast, to be closer to my base, to my family. I’m 90 minutes from my parents right now and I can drive to any of my siblings in under eight hours so getting back to my roots and my natural family was important.
Even though I was in Denver for 15 years, I’m east coast through and through. And so you know, got tired of supporting my sports teams from a distance. So all of those things. Some of the folks who I sought advice from said, you know, at this stage in your career you don't allow institutions to choose you, you choose the institutions you want to work for. I was fortunate to have had some engagements with the current leadership at UConn prior to applying to the position that gave me a sense of what they were about. And so that made it a little easier to step back into this role.
Patrick: And tell us a little bit about this role at UConn. How broad is your scope of work and what level? It's a much larger institution and holds up a bigger space in higher ed.
Frank: Yeah, you know I went from the University of Denver, which is 12,000 students, to UConn, which is about little under 40,000 students total. I went from one campus to a flagship state institution, and it has four satellite campuses, a law school and a health center and the main campus.
So that was also attractive about the work. There was a clear commitment that they wanted to scale up what they were trying to do across the system. That was important to me. One of my re-commitments if I was going to do this again, I was going to do it in a way that I could contribute to something positive that extended beyond just the institution, right? So it had the potential to impact the community surrounding the institution. And a flagship institution is committed to that.
And then the ways in which it's spread out across the state was really attractive. So all of that was a part of the consideration. And I think the other thing was, and I don't think I answered that in your previous question, was unlike my experience with Denver, where I sorta stepped into the role or was invited into a role, I think I entered into this one fully convinced that this was my purpose, my vocation, my passion. And that I was going to commit to do this in a way that allowed me to remain authentic to the things that were important to me.
So this was a much more conscious, intentional decision. Being at an institution that gave me a chance to do this on a much broader scale and to have an impact, not just across the state but my goal here is to position UConn as a key player in the DEI space and the anti-racism space nationally and around the globe. So that's what we're striving for.
Patrick: You are leading in a way that is inspiring. You've mentioned passion and purpose in stepping into this role intentionally. Going all the way back to that conversation with your granddad at the kitchen table, where he says you're going to be doctor, how much of your sense of passion and purpose is driven by the community that surrounds you and how much is driven by your commitment to live out your call, to live out your passion and purpose?
Frank: Yeah, I think it's a combination of both. My mom was born in South America – Guyana - and last year, two years ago, rather I got to go back and visit her homeland, her birth land. And it was my first time since I was like five years old and it was awesome to experience her birth place, but more importantly to learn about the role that my grandfather had played there.
So my grandfather was an engineer, but was also an activist. He was the leader of a union there where he sort of led folks who were mining the bauxite work there. And so to learn about his role as an activist and a leader, and someone who was working for the betterment of folks that look like us and to see that come full circle just meant a lot.
So I think it's both. It's him seeing something in me that reminded him of him, but it's also we are led and driven by our ancestors often and not always aware of those connections. That was just an amazing connection and experience to have. I think all of this is not by accident and it just took me a little longer to submit to it. I'll put it that way.
Patrick: That's amazing. And I just want to say I'm so grateful that you shared your journey with us. It's inspiring I think for future generations who see their work is doing something bigger than just writing a book or just teaching a class, but really trying to make and affect change both at the institution they serve, but you know, broader communities.
I'm grateful to know you and grateful to know that you're making that difference because it's inspiring for me. And to hear your journey home, that's inspiring as well for academics who find themselves in diaspora so often. It is great to know you and thank you so much for sharing your story.
Frank: Thank you for your work as well and the opportunity to be in solidarity with you. Thanks.
Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Dr. Frank Tuitt’s story. We know that you could be listening to a lot of great stories in a lot of great places and we are so grateful that you spent a little time with FTE to hear this story. Special thanks to our design managers Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart and @siryalibeats as always for his music.
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